19 Mar 2020; MEMO: Seventeen years ago, on 19 March 2003, the US led the western invasion of Iraq in a war many consider to be the worst foreign policy disaster in modern history. Justified under the pretext of destroying weapons of mass destruction (WMD) allegedly possessed by the country’s dictator, Saddam Hussein – which turned out to be false as no WMD were found – the war led to the death of millions of people; fuelled sectarian violence; allowed for the rise of militant religious groups and empowered Iran.
What: US invasion of Iraq, When: 19 March 2003 – 18 December 2011
US President George W Bush, whose administration had been overrun by a group of zealot neo-con ideologues determined to redraw the map of the Middle East, led a coalition of mainly western countries to invade Iraq under the pretext of destroying Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s fictional stockpile of weapons of mass destruction.
While the case for war was later discovered to have been utterly false, American planes blitz the capital Baghdad, as US troops took over the city in under a month. The bombing of Baghdad was so severe it is said that each hospital in the capital was receiving an average of 100 casualties per hour, mostly civilians. To this day, Baghdad’s infrastructure has yet to be fully rebuilt, and the city remains scarred not only by the US assault, but also the more than a decade of bombing that followed.
Despite President Bush declaring “Mission Accomplished” on 14 April while on board US air craft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln, the war would go on for eight years killing an estimated 151,000 to 600,000 Iraqis during its early stages. The capture of Saddam Hussain on December 2003 and his subsequent hanging, provided little consolation for the nearly two decades of violence and instability suffered by Iraqis due to a combination of US policy failures and the unleashing of violent forces by the American-led invasion.
What happened next?
In the years following the invasion, Iraq moved one humanitarian crises to another. The Iraqi Red Crescent organisation estimated the total internal displacement was around 2.3 million in 2008, with as many as two million Iraqis having left the country.
The US tried to bring some order by installing a new administration but made a series of blunders that locked Iraq into a cycle of violence and instability. The Americans, presumably expecting a swift victory, were dangerously short in troop numbers as Iraq descended into chaos following the outbreak of insurgency groups. Their ability to deal with insurgents was limited by the decision of Paul Bremer, who ran Iraq for 14 months as head of the Coalition Provisional Authority. The US official disbanded the Iraqi army and embarked on a De-Baathification policy.
As the Iraqi state collapsed, religious and ethnic affiliations became entrenched. Sectarian and religious tensions grew considerably amongst minority communities under the Bremer administration. The American-led invasion and occupation fractured the country along sectarian lines.
The de-Baathification policy pursued by the US occupation purged the civil service of its top layer of management, making between 20,000 and 120,000 people unemployed and removing what was left of the state. This was particularly dangerous in the case of the army and its officer corps, who instead of signing up to the new military joined the insurgency and, eventually, the Sunni militants. Profound uncertainties created by the invasion pushed millions of people into the arms of religious and ethnic groups, militias or whomsoever provided protection.
The newly installed Iraqi regime also fuelled sectarianism by ghettoising Baghdad into Sunni and Shia districts, and turning a blind-eye to the activities of the Shia jihadist militias who reportedly committed sectarian cleansing campaign of many of Baghdad’s districts by either killing Sunnis or threatening them with violence if they did not sell their homes to Shia buyers.
The US withdrew its troops from the conflict in 2011 and is said to have spent nearly $2 trillion in war-related costs in Iraq during its eight years of engagement. Washington was forced to redeploy troops once again in 2014 to deal with the threat of Daesh.